Reading Edge: The World is Round

It goes without saying that reading is a good escape. The process itself, of converting symbolic words into imaginary visual images, is absorbing and a form of fantasy. Fantasy is probably necessary to a creative human life, but now, with creative and social freedoms under severe repression from a political order that seeks to colonize truth and harness fantasy in service to the big lie, it’s essential to understand its power.

No more powerful shared fantasy exists than sport , as measured by the passions it excites. No sport has launched more fantasy than football- the kind you play with your feet- a cultural practice that David Goldblatt points out cogently in his exhaustive study of its history, is common to more of the world’s people than any other. No religion, language, cuisine, or most certainly, other sport, can match its hold on the sheer numbers of people football beguiles.

Consisting of infinite complexity within the frame work of a very simple structure, it’s the scaffolding upon which billions of wishes, hopes, playing styles and cultural attitudes are hung, a shared dream.

Within my four walls with a pandemic virus raging outside, and a cynical, uncaring thugocracy in place in the White House, time to kill and a more than virulent need for escape, it’s become a comfort. It helps to have a new TV, which the long dark approaching winter of a quarantined society almost demanded.

New streaming services, in a jostle for customers are offering cheap packages, and mine provides football from some of its artisanal centers, such as Germany, Italy, Holland and England. It’s rarely noted, but one thing that separates football from insular American league sports is international play, and so competitions range from national leagues of cities and towns to Champions Leagues of top clubs from each country, to Nations Leagues of whole countries vying for continental championships, to of course, the World Cup, a true world championship in which each of over 200 sanctioned nations around the world is eligible to compete.

There is no ‘offseason’, no recovery day, no ‘wait til next year’. The game is an engine of dreams, an escape into the infinite variety of human ambition and athletic creativity. So it’s perfect for a quarantine.

The rest of the world, by virtue of not having a corrupt goon leading it, is now mostly on the way to limiting the virus. After a short shutdown, most leagues are now back in operation, and with an obsessive agenda of making up game fixtures lost. So there’s a LOT of football on right now, albeit in half empty stadiums. US TV can not get enough of it.

First off, there’s the omnipresence of multiple leagues and competitions mentioned above. Coming from all time zones, it offers solutions to every unfilled time slot. My go-to is the European leagues, with offerings each day from roughly 6 AM- 4 PM. That leaves the evening for movies or reading (The US league, an acceptable brand of football comparable to Dutch or Swedish top tiers, and English and German second tiers, is on during the evenings, but for various bizarre reasons, my own local team is unavailable to watch, so it’s hard to not get seduced by the foreign games. Anyway, I haven’t been able to watch much Euro Ball in the last few years owing to prohibitive cable costs. I’m sure streaming will also become expensive after the promotional push is over.) So now is the time.

Football has now become my comfort activity for the pandemic shutdown. I did read a lot during the early days of shutdown, though I always read a lot anyway. As variety becomes a necessary quality in Q-time diversion, soccer fills the bill. Travel, exploration, cultural outreach and escape- football provides a little of all of those, if only in my mind.

I’m still reading, of course. What’s on my list? No surprise:

The Ball Is Round, David Goldblatt: I said “exhaustive”. This 900-page monster is that. The first time I read it after the US edition was released in 2008. At the time I simply let large parts of it wash over me, a favorite strategy for large complex readings. But I kept it on the shelf, knowing a return was inevitable.

Goldblatt spares no detail, and the book might not be for the superficial fan. Goldblatt traces ancient origins then the growth of the game in elite English public schools. Then its adoption by the British working classes as the industrial revolution’s unionism brought a sudden surge in wages and the invention of the weekend, along with the railways as a way to enable professionalism with traveling teams then leagues. Chapter after chapter, a litany of the game’s spread to the myriad nations of the British Empire, and beyond: both formal colonies and informal trading partners. A given country gets British help building industry and railways; native workers get income and holidays; country absorbs football, adding its own cultural flourishes. As the game grew, it became irresistible to fascists and socialists, militarists and capitalists, industrialists, and always, the poor. and working classes. Each culture has its own history with football, and all the histories are here.

Here, the book becomes a story not of a sport, for the devoted fan, but of Industrial Age culture. If history is written by the winners, then football is the story of those brief moments in the sun enjoyed by the losers. A tiny South American country has a democratic renaissance and wins 3 world championships in a row (Uruguay). A Jewish cultural center dominates the world of European football before disappearing into the maw of fascism (Hakoah Vienna). And a ruined fascist realm itself finds rebirth in a new democratic national identity at the 1954 World Cup (Germany). Goldblatt does not set out to write an overtly Marxist history of the game, but he demonstrates clearly that the game can not be separated from the history of socio-economic development. Dictatorships can win World Cups ( Italy, 1934-38), but the game’s inherent celebration of individual and collective endeavor ensures that it is there on the front lines when dictators fall as well ( Arab Spring).

The question is: who writes those scripts? Soccer often looks like an amorphous codified bit of entropy to Americans weaned on the over structured spectacle of gridiron football, but there must be a reason why, as Simon Kuper writes in Soccernomics, Brazil wins, and England loses. It’s not called ‘the beautiful game’ for nothing. Its deceptive simplicity allows endless room for individual creativity, and if English imperial arrogance would not admit of cultural differences, the Brazilians added more than enough samba and Carnival to ensure the game’s continued appeal. And multiple world championships. Like How Soccer Explains the World, by Franklin Foer, this book deserves a wider audience than the typical, obsessive fan boy blather. But as football gains curious new fans here, it may get that.

Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathon Wilson: A game that began as two mobs trying to kick a ball across open fields to a rival town’s city walls retains its transparent aims, but doesn’t always reveal its intricacies. The British in its early days of organization in the 1850’s saw no reason to complicate things much beyond a limit to the amount of people rushing the opposite goal, and that stodgy puritan athletic smugness continued for decades, but others, notably in Europe and South America, quickly saw that a rapidly professionalizing game rewarded innovation. Wilson chronicles the long journey from massed forwards dribbling toward goal to the modern formations that have made managers millions.

The whole thing got started with the ‘center half’, a deceptively named concept of moving a forward back a little off the front line to entice his opposite numbers to advance, thus creating space behind to pass the ball into. The center half, as linking function, eventually drifted back to just in front of the goalie, as ‘sweeper’, and now seems to have manifested as the variety of roles included in the designation ‘defensive midfielder’ that seem to be an integral part of all successful teams. Along the way, 2-3-5 morphed into 4-2-4, and on and on with a high pressing 4-3-3 currently the Ferrari among the Volkswagens. And a 4-2-3-1 the Volkswagen Van of small club dreams, providing versatility in defense and attack. Each change subscribed to the calculus of creating time and space for the most creative players, though there were retrenchments as well, e.g., “Catenaccio’.

Suffice it to say, that this book, too, is not for the superficial fan, sitting on his couch stewing over a 1-0 scoreline, wondering when is the two minute warning so he can get some snacks. But if you’ve gotten sufficiently fascinated by the game’s mysteries to wonder just how that sneaky little pass before the killer pass came to be, then you might find it your tankard of Tetley’s. As for me, having long ago become obsessed, I came up with the plan to read this tactical history in tandem with Goldblatt’s cultural one, alternating in roughly two-decade increments, comparing the game’s social progress with its strategic leaps. I’m now up to the mid-50’s through 60’s, a golden era for most of the game’s important regions, except England, of course.

Not nearly as dry and technical as it might seem, this book amplifies the way that each culture made football its own taking its inspiration and often its narratives from Goldblatt. Often it is individuals, whether players or managers, who inspire tactical innovation. And sometimes, as in the case of Brazil, it is an entire cultural project, to bring the individual expression of the ghetto and the Carnival, into a high performing team level. The results have been known to bring down governments, so it is far from a trivial story.

Will football show the way to a safer communal celebration of sport? Will it dull the violent racism of populists or surrender to it? Will its globalist momentum lead to expression, or repression? Will women, gays, blacks lead its next resurgence? The answer may lie with a rag tag neighborhood game and 22 beat up pairs of sneakers being played somewhere (everywhere?) to a hip hop beat, or, in other words, the beat of a different drum.

I certainly wouldn’t bet against it, and I’ll be watching, for sure. That’s what makes it a great escape, for me, and for ghetto kids of all stripe. It obviously can’t be quarantined out of existence, because it’s what dreams are made of.

The Reading Edge: When the Going Gets Weird

“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”

Hunter S. Thompson

A vacancy of purpose takes hold. This is not necessarily a bad thing in a creative sense; I’ve alluded to large empty landscapes in my work and in my creative process. An idea, I’ve said, might be compared to a single rider appearing on a dark plain.

It becomes a bit disconcerting, doesn’t it, when vacancy overtakes your daily routine. It’s an issue I’ve seen coming but delayed addressing, but as I reach official retirement age next spring, it’s been a subtext to my lockdown activities. What to do to keep everyday fresh. I’ve got projects, like everyone, there’s the slow reorganization of life around the idea of staying home. I’ve made a teaching video, applied for economic relief, attended to chores both bureaucratic and domestic. Odd that enrolling in Medicare came at the same time as the virus exposed the weakness of the American health infrastructure.

I had set aside creative production with the closing of my normal workspace, but now I’m looking to return to sketching and studio tasks in anticipation of its eventual reopening. I’ve kept busy. But a creative response was always going to be a must going forward.

But what’s the response? What is the meaning of this newly recovered time? That’s not as easy to resolve as painting the bedroom or as simple to unlock as a studio door. I’ve always turned to art and pop culture in my resting hours to inform that investigation, but now, in a sort of free floating anxiety, I found it hard to pursue new, complex projects. So I returned to older revelations to see them in a new context. Creative flipping, I’ve called it- like a monkey with a stick, I’m turning things over to see if there’s some important function I’ve missed. It can feel repetitive. But in repetition is motion, in motion there can be found rhythm and in rhythm can be found music (art).

And that is -of course! -what led me to Thomas Pynchon and Neil Young. I won’t try to link them- a process that would certainly fill time, but also condemn this blog to the farthest, and very vacant reaches of SEO exile. But I will post separate speculations as evidence of something I consider an essential truth: art’s rarely great, without first being weird. Both Pynchon and Young have had long successful, honored careers. Neither ever foreswore their insistence on being weird.

Mason and Dixon, Thomas Pynchon: In the void that opened up between daily creative purpose (what to do?), and mindfully spent days (what to make of this?), my full docket of readings collapsed. I’m a browser. With the library closed, limited budget and shelf space for online purchases, and the strange, vacant days having tracked us down, I searched my shelf and found a reliable poltergeist to fit the zeitgeist. This is the third time I’ve read it. Why?

Pynchon, like America- and let’s be honest, we didn’t need a pandemic shutting down The Cheesecake Factory to show us this, it’s been right there in front of our faces all the while- is weird and more than a little scary. Pynchon happens to be much better at dressing up the existential paranoia with humor, with robust sentences and images, with the sort of literary parallax that post modernism specializes in, than the country, especially as represented by the incomprehensible word salad of its titular spokesman. We wish America was funny-weird-scary right now, rather than scary-weird-scary. As soon as I pulled the book from my shelf, hefting the 865 pages of funny weird creepy improvisations on the very heavily loaded line drawn in 1863 between Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania and a host of very American histories they stand for, I knew I was home. I wish I could say the same when I look out my front window.

Novels having flown their arcs, this is a very simple tale. Straight line, east to west, actually. To complicate it: some monarch ( James II and VII, but who’s counting) has botched the math in awarding proprietorship in colonies to Penn and Calvert, and borders must be surveyed to fit the authoritarian ignorance. Mason and Dixon, between gigs sighting Transits of Venus, a measurement of solar parallax that was a landmark in determining astronomic distances, are hired. The line surveyed took 4 years of hacking their way through the wilderness and triangulating it with the stars. It eventually wound up becoming a political-cultural touchstone when Americans could not triangulate their way around the question of owning human beings and how much the darkness of their skin devalues them. It sits there invisibly in the pleasant rolling Middle Atlantic landscape, having become as much scar as inscribed line.

That’s where Pynchon comes in. His genius is exploring the dark dreamlike wilderness between science and storytelling. Apocalyptic rainbows etched by erectile weaponry, capital “V” vectors between identity and desire, that sort of thing. The astronomers/ surveyors survive sea battles to get to slave states, pick up chicks with Franklin, smoke pot with Washington. Then they get out their instruments, and the weirdness really kicks in.

This is not beach reading, though it is at times hilarious. It puts the lie to the Rousseauan Arcadia of pre-revolutionary America, and includes Indian massacres, professional-grade geometry and robot ducks. This is an America that is unmapped, and thus dreamlike. “Does Britannia when she sleeps, dream? Is America her dream?” There is a long section in which a character lives through the 11 days that everyone else skipped over when England converted to the Gregorian calendar. It immediately came to mind when the reality of the shelter-in-place was fresh, and weird.

I set myself up on the couch in the hours formerly known as morning rush hour, or the now perfect silence that settles after dark, with my beverage ( coffee, the official drink of Enlightenment era political ferment, now the drug of choice for essential workers, gets a starring role in the book) and my Pynchon Wiki, a pioneering internet lit crit innovation that TRP can justly claim indirect credit for. The wiki helps one to negotiate the myriad historical and scientific allusions, the coffee opens one’s eyes to Pynchon’s rich imaginings, faux Early Modern English patois and robust syntax, the quiet streets remind us that however strange and frightening our history, we are still a work in progress, a nation that can be about the future. Who, after all, writes a book about 18th Century surveyors; unless he thinks it can tell us something about how our lines are drawn now?

Familiar, and yet strange. That is the textbook definition of the surreal, and not to overuse a very overused term, a perfect description of what passes for our daily lives right now. A bit of a horror show, really, though not without its irony, humor and possibility. These days, like all days, once we see them, for all their weirdness, approach the sublime. We’re going to need artists like Pynchon, who in this book says, through the voice of a framing character:

“Who claims Truth, Truth abandons. History is hir’d, or coerc’d, only in Interests that must ever prove base. She is too innocent, to be left within the reach of anyone in Power,- who need but touch her, and all her Credit is in the instant vanish’d, as if it had never been. She needs rather to be tended lovingly and honorably by fabulists and counterfeiters, Ballad-Mongers and Cranks of ev’ry Radius, Masters of Disguise to provide her the Costume, Toilette, and Bearing, and Speech nimble enough to keep her beyond the Desires, or even the Curiosity, of Government.

The tiny hands of corruption are all over the narrative of the present day; the poets and artists- essential workers, by Pynchon’s lights- are on the back heel. In casting about restlessly in my quarantined space I found, on my shelf, the perfect book for this eerie, vacant lost world. Fabulist, counterfeiter, ballad-monger, crank- which am I? In a time when society tends to put people like me, older, poorer, marginalized by choice of profession- on a shelf; in a nation that has never prioritized the health of its people, it’s a healthy question to ask.

And here is your reminder that whatever you read, listen to, or do to get you through this bizarre period, to remember to vote on November 3, as the health of a nation depends upon it.

Reading List

Haven’t done a reading list all year. First obstacle was a very busy beginning to #MoPrint2020, then a frantic round of cancellations. For a while, I wasn’t getting a lot of reading done, perhaps from burnout? Then, there was a family visit back east, and a short staffed day job creating long hours. Through those, I’ve been reading, and now as the quarantine stretches into long weeks or even months, it will continue to be a major activity. It’s cheap, it’s peaceful and safe, it’s… socially distant.

The British Are Coming, Rick Atkinson: Covers the first two years of the War for Independence; roughly, Concord through Trenton. Two more volumes are planned. I’d read 1776, by David McCullough, but this book, in addition to being more granular, was more of a cultural history, with the experiences of the common foot soldier, farmer, and wife given a central role. Even the Tories, those loyal to the King, get some coverage here, which can be rare. It was compelling in that way, and of course, the words and movements of the politicians and generals was fascinating, too. This was an ARC, (bound galley) from work, so I have a long wait for the second volume, but will watch carefully for it.

Endeavour, Peter Moore: I savored this book from Xmas through March, and if I ever have a Besties for prose, this will be on it. Another hybrid history, with cultural and scientific events and a general examination of the Enlightenment all bound in with what traditional histories see as the dawn of global colonialism. A very complex and thrilling tale of Captain Cook’s first South Seas voyage, that takes as its protagonist the ship itself, with Cook, Royal Society scientist Joseph Banks and naturalist painter/ illustrator Sydney Parkinson as co-stars.

The book begins in the oak forests of Yorkshire and bounces back and forth between day-to-day accounts of English coastal coal trade, descriptions of Tahitian society, and sea faring adventure on the Great Barrier Reef off Australia. It ends with the American War for Independence, where Endeavour, having been renamed, then recruited for transporting Hessian mercenaries, meets an ignominious end, ironically within yards of where Captain Cook’s second ship also ended up. I couldn’t help recalling Rocket Men, the account of Apollo missions to the moon, which carried fragments of one of those ships.

It’s now an indicator of a book’s impression on me that it finds a rare and precious spot on my crowded shelves, awaiting my return to it. This one did.

The Splendid and the Vile, Eric Larson: Yet another cultural history. They are becoming popular, and I really can’t get enough of them. Is this indicative as some sort of academic/historiographical populism? This one takes a close look at Churchill and family during the first year of World War II. Though aristocrats, they had much contact with ordinary Brits during this period, thus giving a close-in picture of life during the blitz.He also skips across the channel to give a picture of members of the Nazi elite for contrast.

I haven’t read that much about Churchill, so it was a real fascinating look at how he galvanized British resistance to the Nazis, with an eye to doing the same for the American public, too. I read it on my visit back East, and it went fast.

Islands in the Stream, Ernest Hemingway: my second Hemingway obsession started with Hemingway’s Boat, a fresh look at the author’s middle and end years by Paul Hendrickson, which I read in 2018. I am culling my shelves to clear space, and often, part of the process of selling a book such as this one, that I haven’t read since my college days, is to re-read it.

I remember my first impression, which was of a fragmented, second-rate book, by the standards of his earlier classics. Hemingway’s literary reputation had suffered since those early books ( The Sun Also Rises, A Farwell to Arms ), monuments to the man’s man modernism of the early 20th Century. His later, callous behavior as a hard drinking celeb author -especially to women, and his spotty creative output ran afoul of the rise of academic feminism and post modern critical theory in the 70’s.

My sophomore (-ic?) college reading binge was thus already outdated by the late 70’s, but my decision to buy and keep the book, a Book Club first edition, was undoubtedly colored by the fact that Middle American manhood of that period was inextricably bound in with Hemingway, by then enshrined as the great Middle American modernist. All of my drinking binges, skiing and hiking years in Wyoming, and creative excess, along with that of many of my friends, was inspired by the image of Hemingway, not so much a hipster saint, like Kerouac, but a god.

Hendrickson’s book is part of a revival of sorts, which drew heavily on his later and posthumous work, such as this, and The Garden of Eden, to examine the author’s history of head injury, mental problems and gender issues ( as examined in Garden) to forge a more sympathetic portrait.

Upon re-reading, the book remains fragmented. It was started in the early 50’s as a grand trilogy of earth, air and sea; and a reply to the critical disaster of Across the River and Into the Trees, which I haven’t read. As often happened in his hard drinking, head-trauma-ravaged 50’s, it was set aside. A small part was extracted and became The Old Man and the Sea. The rest was found after his suicide, and cobbled together under this title.

It reads as three novellas, all centered on a single protagonist, Thomas Hudson, a story of a summer on Bimini with his three children; then a grief stricken drinking binge in Cuba after the death of his fictional oldest son, and finally, a taut war time chase off the coast of Cuba. This last is an imaginative embellishment of Hemingway’s wartime activities hunting for Nazi subs after he’d badgered the U.S. and Cuban governments for extra gas rations and equipment to equip his boat, which in real life, came to nothing much.

It’s one of the best action sequences he ever wrote, and if the book doesn’t always hold together as well as the precise and focussed Sun and Farewell, neither is it as mawkish, at times, as his wartime romance For Whom the Bell Tolls. It contains some very affecting writing on family, love and loss, along with much self examination by his narrative stand-in, Hudson, despite the writer’s rep for macho posturing. That’s here, too, as well as a grief/mercy fuck from his much longed-for first (fictional) wife, a dramatic deep sea fishing scene, and a penchant for arbitrarily killing off some characters as he became estranged from their real-life counter parts. Does this include, as joy and adventure give way inexorably to loss and regret, himself?

So, Hemingway, for all of the violence and pathos of his last years, in this book does examine his own role in the disappointments of his family life. The narrative reactions do seem arbitrary and reflexive- ex-wife dies; must drink, go fight Nazis- but the interior struggle of his protagonist is real, and affecting. The book seems somewhat essential to understanding his life and art, and also, fun to read. I’m still selling it, but I’m glad I’ve given Hemingway a second look.

Hemingway in Love, A.E.Hotchner: Also somewhat essential to understanding facts about Hemingway’s late years, but aside from that, a disappointment. This is because the story, about E.H’s regret over the dissolution of his first marriage, might have been an embarrassment to his surviving fourth wife ( also a possible reason for setting aside Islands) and is necessarily told second hand. Hotchner, despite a long career writing, is no where near the writer Hemingway was, and cannot replicate the author’s powerful, concise voice in what are apparently, reconstructed quotations. Thus the tale, though inherently interesting, seems maundering and (doubly so, given Hemingway’s penchant for paranoia and self pity during the time it was narrated) self-serving.

The Lion in the Living Room, Abigail Tucker: Far from a fluffy tribute to our precious little predators, Tucker, self professed cat lover, provides a wake-up call for her fellow fanciers. She explores Felis Silvestris as an invasive, parasitical species, and not just on Facebook! Kittehs as bold interlopers that ” domesticated themselves” and have a major impact on the environment.

What, in fact, did humans get from allowing them to spread into households around the world? Precious little, science tells us, the psychological comfort in their blank, Hello Kitty faces aside. And they may, in a very real biological way, be controlling our minds. Heavens to Murgatroyd! This book provides a cautionary tale to those of us who are tempted to anthropomorphize our pets.

While I, for one, welcome our new feline overlords, there is one easy conclusion to report: for your health, sanity, and the sake of threatened species everywhere, keep the adorable little monsters inside.